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Pakistan: Democratic resilience

by S. Akbar Zaidi, 3 February 2013

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The News on Sunday - 3 February 2013

Tahirul Qadri’s failed revolution is a strong
testament to how much democracy has evolved in the last five years and the extent to which the establishment has been on the retreat

by S Akbar Zaidi

Tahirul Qadri’s sudden emergence on the political stage of Pakistan has been correctly interpreted as one which was intended to derail democracy for many years to come rather than to cleanse the government of corrupt practices. The fact that the Allama has failed is a strong testament to how much Pakistan’s democracy has evolved in the last five years and the extent to which Pakistan’s establishment has been on the retreat. Inadvertently, the Allama’s sponsored intrusion may have actually strengthened democracy, not weakened it.

The general consensus in the media regarding the new challenger to the throne in Islamabad, Tahirul Qadri, is that he is the most recent representative of “the establishment”. The view is that Qadri, chosen and substantively supported by the establishment, is on his way to oust democracy and return Pakistan to a form of government which was the norm till 2008. Since Qadri’s huge public gathering in Lahore on 23 December, 2012, in which he threatened to march on to Islamabad — a “Long March” to set up a Tahrir Square — unless a number of his demands were met by Parliament, the media in Pakistan as well as many elected representatives have been accusing the Allama of being a plant, a stooge, talking and threatening at the behest of Pakistan’s military as well as on behalf of the Americans.

Pakistan is a land of conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Anyone who emerges quite suddenly on a wave of popular and populist support is usually accused of having the support of the establishment, the military and the “agencies”. Yet, as many who are familiar with Pakistan also know, given the power, influence, resources and the current disposition and desperation of the establishment and agencies, many of these rumours are actually quite true. Imran Khan and the religious right-wing alliance, the Dif’a-e-Pakistan Council, were the most recent examples, but both failed. One would need considerable persuasion to think otherwise regarding Pakistan’s most recent populist figure.

An unelected religious scholar, Tahirul Qadri, who interrupts his interlocutors if they call him “maulana” and insists that they address him as Allama, Dr or Prof, held Islamabad hostage for four days to demand a series of electoral reforms. Accusing the current Parliament with the vilest of titles, the theme on the top of his sermons was that the electoral system and the elected representatives had failed to improve the welfare of the people, and all those in the Parliament, whether in government or in opposition, are crooks, swindlers, tax-evaders, liars, cheats, and essentially unworthy of the trust which the electorate has invested in them. He is not incorrect in many of these allegations, for the performance of the elected representatives, especially of the government, has been particularly poor.

However, the five years of democracy in Pakistan, since 2008, have been equally impressive and, perhaps for the first time, Pakistan may be on the path to ensuring a democratic future.

The Allama:

There is little doubt that the Allama kept not just Islamabad but, through his live television addresses, the whole of Pakistan captive of his messianic and often mesmerising speeches. He is the head of a large number of Minhaj-ul Quran madrasas all across Pakistan, especially in Punjab. He spoke with a passion and emotion not seen on Pakistan’s television for many years, with the exception of the speeches of a very different politician, Altaf Hussain, the leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), known in the past for a very different form and style of politics.

In many ways, the Allama and the Quaid of the MQM speak in the same style and have similar content (especially about 1 or 2% of the people being against the 99 or 98%), both are dual citizens, Allama of Canada and the Quaid of the United Kingdom, and both have complete control over their cadre reminiscent of a very different kind of politics, certainly not one which allows for democratic and individualistic thought.

The Allama, in one of his addresses, asked all his followers to stand, and they did; he asked them to sit and they complied, just as Altaf Hussain has done many times over. Moreover, the MQM was one of the first political parties to support the Allama’s programme and Long March, but did not walk the distance when the government of Asif Ali Zardari requested the Quaid to not support the march. The MQM is also seen as one of the establishment’s most trusted parties, having been one of the military’s and General Musharraf’s key supporters and allies in the 1999-2008 period, playing a particularly dishonourable role during Pakistan’s 2007 lawyers’ movement.

One must acknowledge the fact that the Allama, even if he has been backed by the agencies, was able to gather a very large crowd in the heart of Islamabad. As is always the case, no one really knows how many actually turned up and camped on Jinnah Avenue in Islamabad for four days in freezing temperatures and in the rain, but whatever their number, they were able to bring the government down to not just listen to the Allama, but to negotiate with a religious leader who was not in the Parliament but able to articulate many of the concerns which affected the common citizen of Pakistan.

The Allama spoke a radical language, often sounding like a revolutionary, talking about inequality, greed, and corruption. This was no crusader of the Gandhi ilk, but rather one who used religious metaphors, especially from Shia Islam — he and his followers are Barelvi Sunnis, the so-called Sufi, or “softer” face of south Asian Islam, supposedly less (or non) violent, compared to the Deobandis, Wahabis, Salafis, and the Taliban — talking about this confrontation between evil and good, justice and dehumanisation, as one similar to that of Karbala, of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. On numerous occasions, he cast himself as an Imam Hussain and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government as Yazid, asking his followers whether they would lay down their lives for their cause, as Imam Hussain had done 13 centuries ago. Unhesitatingly, they said they would.

The Allama is an internationally respected scholar of Islam, who was elected to Musharraf’s 2002 Parliament, but left for Canada where he sought asylum and became a citizen when the general failed to offer a prominent position to him. Footage on television has shown Tahirul Qadri being served food in a private gathering by Nawaz Sharif, and the Allama himself stated in one of his Islamabad speeches that Benazir Bhutto became a lifelong member of his Minhajul Quran system.

He is no novice when it comes to being a religio-political scholar, one with ambitions of holding office and exercising the power and influence which goes with it. He is not an aalim of the old school, retiring and contemplative in his spiritual tasks and learning in the image of a sufi, but one who uses references from Islamic traditions establishing the need to serve his people. His Barelvi fiqh also puts him completely at odds with the Taliban-style Salafist, jihadist Islam, and Qadri has been courageous to speak from an Islamic platform against suicide bombings and the type of practices carried out by the Salafists supporting the Taliban. In fact, he has been the archetypical Islamic scholar who the Taliban would want to eliminate.

Interestingly, his references to a softer, more compassionate Islam, his numerous references to non-Muslims in Pakistan — he refuses to label them as “minorities” — and his vision of a Jinnah’s liberal Pakistan have earned him great respect and acceptance by elected representatives and prominent liberal intellectuals for promoting the moderate nature of Islam.

The Establishment

Probably the two most marked aspects of Pakistan’s political scene since 2007, and each has a strong bearing on the other, have been the rise of the media as an institution of public morality and righteousness, as well as one which streams live information on the decay in the authority and also public perceptions on the stature of Pakistan’s military. The establishment — essentially Pakistan’s army — has, for numerous reasons, lost its privileged position in the political economy of Pakistan.

While this might just be a temporary phenomenon, this sentiment has continued to prevail for more than six years since Musharraf’s government took military action against the Red Mosque in Islamabad, followed by the lawyers’ movement, and a host of failures attributed to the military such as the Osama bin Laden raid and killing, attacks by Pakistani militants on military bases, and so on.

The establishment continues to influence and intervene in the democratic and political process in Pakistan through individuals and parties such as the MQM and what was called the King’s (Musharraf’s) Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid Azam (PML-Q), both of which are key allies having kept the incumbent PPP government of Asif Zardari in power for five years. The establishment needed a representative to stand on its own. Its first candidate was Imran Khan, its second Tahirul Qadri.

Both Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri — the former was one of the most committed supporters of the Long March, but failed to participate — have been saying much the same regarding corruption, misgovernance and the need to dismiss the present Parliament and hold elections immediately. Both have embraced each other ideologically, representing not dissimilar constituencies. Importantly, both have attacked the elected government and opposition members, and both have had high praise for the two most important unelected institutions in Pakistan, the military and the judiciary.

Qadri, in particular, went out of his way to eulogise Pakistan’s military for numerous reasons, never once questioning, leave alone criticising, its political role in the recent past. At first, he was critical of the judiciary, but quickly changed his tune, speaking of both the military and the judiciary as the two institutions which could save Pakistan. He insisted that both should be involved in the process of choosing the caretaker government which is to hold elections in a few weeks.

Since 1977, it has been Pakistan’s military leadership which has decided who will head the government in Pakistan, and only since 2008 have decisions been taken by elected representatives rather than the military. Moreover, while today Pakistan now has a free and pro-democratic judiciary, until 2007 it was the same judiciary — with some of the very same members on the Supreme Court — which supported and endorsed every illegitimate draconian action of Pakistan’s military leadership. While Qadri wanted these two unelected institutions to have a say on the process of politics in Pakistan over the next few months, it was the elected Parliament, which through the 20th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 2011, worked out a procedure to strengthen the Election Commission of Pakistan and elect the caretaker prime minister — through consent and agreement between the leader of the House and the leader of the Opposition in Parliament — excluding any role for the military or the judiciary. This, and many of the Allama’s other demands, lay outside the bounds of what the Constitution of Pakistan, with its recent amendments, has made permissible.

The Democrats:

The most noticeable unintended consequence of the siege of Islamabad was that political groups of every persuasion came together to unite against the Allama’s unconstitutional demands and his vehement attack against democracy. This was most marked in the behaviour and statements of two institutions, the media and the opposition political parties.

The media, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, took a united and collective stand in favour of democracy — although not always defending an incompetent government — arguing that if the Allama had any serious political issue to raise, he must follow the democratic and electoral path and contest elections. Senior members of the media who have a great deal of influence on the public played a partisan and proactive role in their defence of democracy, often cutting short views which supported anti-democratic institutions and practices. Participants on talk shows who criticised the government arguing for a role for the military or direct military intervention were quickly shut out. Pakistan has changed.

The opposition political parties, inside and outside of Parliament, including prominent religious parties, all came out strongly in their defence of democratic process in Pakistan arguing for elections to take place as scheduled in a few weeks. This was particularly the case with Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Qadri’s slogan was “Save the State, not Politics”, which was perceived to be anti-democratic by almost all elected representatives, with the exception of Imran Khan and some of Musharraf’s former colleagues and supporters.

Many of those who opposed Qadri’s demands pointed out that the demands — such as involving the military and the judiciary in choosing the caretaker prime minister and in dissolving the Election Commission of Pakistan — were unconstitutional. And they hit back together, united in their defence of democracy. When opposition political parties have a stake in keeping democracy and the democratic process free from the military, this is a huge progress, given the fact that, since 1977, it has always been Pakistan’s opposition parties which have urged the military to take over.

Cowardly and weak government:

While the main hero of events of the second week of January was Pakistan’s opposition, in particular Nawaz Sharif, the biggest loser, undoubtedly, despite the spin on events, has been the incumbent PPP government. They were forced to come to a negotiating table set up by an Allama who had cursed the government and its leaders — calling Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf the “former Prime Minister” once the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered his arrest — and in the end, neither the Allama nor the government were able to save face. The Allama got a few promises about what would happen next in terms of further negotiations with the Islamabad-based federal government, none of which are constitutionally binding, and all the PPP got was some praise for ending the siege without force, along with a soiled reputation for agreeing to negotiate with a bully.

The PPP government is encircled with numerous problems of failure and weakness, and there is little disagreement over its inability to deal with Balochistan’s crises made worse by imposing governor’s rule, growing sectarianism especially in Quetta, Karachi’s political feuds, and even the Supreme Court of Pakistan has given its share of a more than troubling time to the government. There is little doubt that there is great popular discontent against the incumbent government in Islamabad.


No matter how much one argues for the need for a strong democracy, especially in a military-dominated country like Pakistan, the emergence of 21st century populism of the Tea Party, Anna Hazare or Tahirul Qadri type, which uses extra constitutional means to correct numerous flaws and shortcomings in constitutional democracy, does require far greater understanding.

For example, how does one get rid of or correct a dysfunctional, weak, corrupt, A ‘Cost-Benefit’ Analysis of UID Reetika Khera, a cost-benefit analysis by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy of the benefits from Aadhaar integration with seven schemes throws up huge benefits that are based almost entirely on unrealistic assumptions. Further, the report does not take into account alternative technologies that could achieve the same or similar savings, possibly at lower cost.

A recent study released by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) presents an innovative “cost-benefit analysis” of the Unique Identification (UID) or Aadhaar project. This is, in principle, a welcome step towards more informed discussion and greater transparency of this project. On close examination, however, the widely-publicised conclusions of this study turn out to have a fragile basis.

In a nutshell, the NIPFP report covers the potential use of Aadhaar in seven major welfare schemes and subsidies. These are the public distribution system (PDS), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA, or simply NREGA), school education (including teacher salaries, mid-day meals, textbooks and uniforms), fertiliser subsidy, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) subsidy, Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), and payments in other schemes. It estimates that linking these programmes to Aadhaar will lead to a “saving” of Rs 1 lakh crore over 10 years (Mathew 2012), and that after accounting for the costs of integration with Aadhaar the internal rate of return of the project will be over 50%.

The damage caused to the social, political, cultural fabric of a country could be irreversible. Does one just urge the opposition to “play its role”, or are extra-constitutional measures, such as long marches and Tahrir Squares, democratic alternatives? And if they are, how are they manifest?


The above article from The News on Sunday is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use